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Garner's afternoon of hell at Reading

There weren’t many bad memories of Rotherham’s 2000/01 promotion winning season, but the trip to Reading was definitely one of them.

It should have been one of the stellar games of the campaign – a visit to a brand-spanking out-of-town stadium against a bankrolled club paying an obscene amount of money for their players compared to the Millers’ shallow pockets.

And by the time it came around in March 2001, it was a real top-of-the-table battle as Ronnie Moore’s men were defying the odds sitting in the top two, with Alan Pardew’s side snapping at their heels five points behind.

But where playing against the better sides so far that season had brought the best out of Moore’s men that was not the case at the Madejski Stadium.

The Millers were rolled over by a rampant Royals, who triumphed 2-0, finishing with nine men and Moore charging the pitch after the full-time whistle to accost the referee - an act which earned him a touchline ban and £1,000 fine.

It felt as if it was a real damaging defeat at the time, with a distinct possibility of promotion being derailed, but Moore’s men were made of sterner stuff than that and famously went on to earn a place in the second tier after a memorable afternoon against Brentford.

Midfielder Darren Garner broke his leg at Reading and was out for 18 months
However, the defeat was damaging in ways far more important than football.

Heading the list of things that went wrong the Millers that afternoon in Berkshire was a horrific career-threatening injury to midfielder Darren Garner.

After a shocking tackle from James Harper, which went unpunished by referee Guy Stretton, Garner suffered a double fracture of his leg.

While the Millers endured what seemed like an afternoon from hell, it was the start of 18 months of a personal nightmare for the popular midfielder, who had been enjoying his best form in a red and white shirt.

From quotes in best-selling book Impossible Dream: The Ronnie Moore Years, Garner recalls the moment his life changed forever.

“I was on the edge of the penalty box and I went to shoot in mid-air and when I went to kick it, James Harper kung-fu kicked me and caught me halfway between my knee and my ankle,” he explained.

“I hit the deck straight away and it was a strange feeling, I was like, ‘What was that, that hurt’. I was on the floor and I tried getting back up and obviously my leg just gave way so (physio) Denis Circuit came on and I said to him, ‘Just give me a couple of minutes, I will just try and stand on it’. He said, ‘You’ve got not chance, have a look at your leg’.

“So I looked down and my leg was just at an angle it shouldn’t have been at. I knew I was struggling but I tried to stand up but obviously it was no good and the next thing I knew I was on one of those motorised stretchers.”

While Garner was receiving treatment at the stadium, the game had to carry on and the Millers did not handle it in the best of ways – with Stewart Talbot losing his head shortly after and seeing red, literally.

“I didn’t really see the tackle on Daz myself, I just remember him going down and being in a lot of trouble and one or two people were saying they weren’t happy with the challenge,” Talbot said, also in Impossible Dream. “I’d had my leg broken very badly a couple of years before that so I knew what a bad thing it was to have that done.

“Later on when I was shielding the ball out, one of their lads came through the back of me.

“And after such a bad challenge had already happened, I was just thinking to myself, ‘Has he gone to do me?’.

“It was a split-second thing, I just turned around and punched the lad. I did it slyly, but the ref was stood right next to me so I couldn’t really get away with it.

“As I was walking off, I offered Martin Allen out down the tunnel. I had a few words with him. That was a strange one because later I played under him at Brentford and he reminded me of what happened that day!”

After the dust had settled on that defeat, which allowed Reading back into the promotion race, the Millers were able to pick themselves up again.

But Garner wasn’t. He had his leg reset rather than pinned, meaning it was a longer recovery time.

Plenty of dark days followed, but with the support of the club he battled back.

“I decided that I would have it set properly and naturally and then it was a case of 12 to 18 months before I’d be back playing at the level I was,” Garner added. “That was life. At the time I was very, very bitter and thought about suing. But there was no video evidence, the referee didn’t see it or even book him.

“The disappointing fact for me was that James Harper never got in touch. If I’d have done that, I’d have tried my best to get in touch somehow to say no hard feelings, nothing was meant by it.

“But I heard nothing from him and he went on to bigger and better things as well.

“The club were looking to get better players in and you think to yourself, ‘I’m not going to get back in. I’m going to be out for a year to 18 months, am I going to come back as fit and strong as I was before, am I going to be able to compete against these players?’. That does go through your mind.

“One thing that did stick with me is that you have to give it a good crack. I had a month, maybe two months of feeling sorry for myself, drinking a lot and whatever else and then it was a case of getting my head down and grafting. 

"Without (fitness coach) John Bilton I wouldn’t have come back. The stuff he did for me was phenomenal. I always tell people there is only one man I have got to thank and that is John Bilton. 

"He used to drag me in and we did loads of work, strengthening and exercises and it was just brilliant. I did come back and felt stronger and fitter and I have to say a huge thank you to John because without him I wouldn’t have come back, no way.”

Luckily Garner did eventually come back into the fray and he would end up writing himself into Millers folklore.

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